This summer, countless reactions to the escalation in Gaza and Israel flooded our newsfeeds on social media. Anger, fear and grief dominated the conversation. Students seemed to want to do something, and there was mounting frustration around the inefficacy of the American response.
So, when J Street U got back to campus, chapters across the country organized vigils to both pay respect to lives lost and meaningfully move forward. These vigils were meant as a call to action– what is our role in ensuring a peaceful end to this conflict?
Last week, J Street U at American University in Washington, DC hosted such a vigil. Thirty AU students joined us as we lit candles, read the stories of lives lost and discussed how to move forward. We felt that we had to tell the story of Muhammad Abu Harb, who watched a bomb land on his home in Gaza and kill his sister, Rawida. And, we had to tell the story of Ya’akov Yinon, who was forced to leave his home in a moshav in Southern Israel due to the barrage of rockets falling in his backyard.
In planning for the vigil, we reached out to various faith communities, as well as pro-Israel and pro-Palestine organizations on campus, asking them to co-sponsor the event. We invited these organizations to co-sponsor because we have a deep respect for their perspectives and understand that finding a peaceful solution to this conflict will only come if we are willing to work together. Organizations we invited to co-sponsor include the Arab Student Association, Students for Justice in Palestine, AmeriPAC (AU’s AIPAC affiliate), Christians United for Israel, the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), the Catholic Chaplaincy, the Jewish Student Association, the Muslim Student Association, the United Methodist Student Association, AU Students for Israel and AU Hillel.
Every one of these organizations declined to co-sponsor.
The only organizations that agreed to co-sponsor were the AU Humanist Community, the AU Humanist Chaplaincy and AU Student Government. We are truly grateful for their support and dedication to honoring the lives lost. Yet we are deeply disappointed and saddened by the decision taken by all the other groups.
Some of these organizations, including AU Hillel and AU Students for Israel, explained that their decision not to co-sponsor was based on the decision made by J Street U at AU to read more Palestinian civilian names than Israeli names at the vigil, representing the actual, objective proportions of the casualties. Taken out of context, they believed the reading of nameswould unintentionally demonize Israel for those in attendance who are not sufficiently knowledgeable about the conflict. There were other reasons as well: the United Methodist Student Association was concerned about signing on without the Muslim Student Association. And Students for Justice in Palestine, the Arab Student Association and Ameripac did not reply to our requests at all.
This is the disheartening reality of our campus climate. The AU community prides itself on its dedication to social justice, empathy and tolerance. But if just a few weeks after a ceasefire agreement the AU community cannot concretely acknowledge the individuals who have died, then we have a community that is unwilling to act according to the values it claims to represent.
Regardless of whether these potential partners were concerned that intelligent AU students wouldn’t be able to contextualize names being read as they walked by, or were unwilling to recognize the deaths on both sides, or were afraid of how they would be perceived without the cover of other organizations, what resulted was a community that was unable to officially come together to mourn the loss of Palestinian and Israeli life.
Unfortunately, these dynamics at AU are reflected in the larger political sphere, where most are content to return to the status quo. Where are the impassioned voices of the summer, now that the violence has ended? If we cannot come together as a community to mourn, how can we hope to address the real underlying issues of the conflict and move forward productively?
At J Street U, we believe that it is our responsibility to work towards a solution that ensures we never have to hold a vigil again. J Street U at AU will continue to take actions to move toward a two-state solution because we believe Israelis and Palestinians have the right to self-determination and to live in peace. These goals are attainable, but only when we break down the barriers put in place by the status quo. We hope those fed up with the violence — and the apathy in the face of that violence — will work with us.
Katie Corwin ’17 and Hannah Ehlers ’16 are co-presidents of J Street U at AU. Katie is studying political science and gender studies and Hannah is studying Jewish studies.